Happy birthday, MICT

03 Oct 2012

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. It has been a frustrating decade full of false starts and hopes that never quite materialised.

It is also a very personal journey, for before I became a journalist I was a civil servant at the MICT earning a grand sum of $300 (7,780 baht) a month. Put in comparison, my friends in the financial sector were earning more than ten times as much.

I still remember my first day on the job. I was the first officer in the bureau of ICT promotion, but since there was no director yet, I was in my empty department on the fifth floor of CAT Telecom for all of five minutes before I was whisked away to the Permanent Secretary and somehow ended up as ministerial speechwriter for the rest of my civil service career.

It was an odd experience. Writing policy speeches meant that I had to be finely tuned-in on policy so I was a fly-on-the-wall in all the top level meetings at the ministry despite my lowly rank. For those who consider PR to be the dark side, political speechwriting was even worse. Policy was made up as we went along and oh, the fudging of numbers. I remember one speech where, to prove we had succeeded in promoting broadband penetration, we simply multiplied each ADSL line to an office by 100 and each line to a university by 1,000 and quietly substituted the word users for ports. None of the press caught on to that subtle change.

The ICT Ministry was modelled around Nectec, the Ministry of Science’s National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre, and most of the first set of acting directors were all Nectec staff. The transfer never happened as political bickering and arguments over pay (who in their right mind would take a 75% pay cut?) took hold. That explains why too often the MICT and Nectec have many redundant and conflicting roles and why we have both Software Park (part of the science ministry) and the Software Industry Promotion Agency (ICT).

It was at one of the early meetings that I met Dr Rom Hiranpruk, back then director of Software Park. In that very preliminary meeting, he spoke of how the first task of the ICT Ministry should be to map out all government data elements and create a data dictionary so that future e-government services can be properly designed.

Ten years later, such a comprehensive review of all government data elements has not happened. Ownership of data is still siloed and fragmented between warring government departments and a central custodian of government data has not emerged.

Some blamed the fact that we had a charismatic but politically inexperienced minister at the helm, one who could not demand that more powerful ministers hand over bureaux. The way the ministry was designed mattered not. Bureaux meant budget and budget meant power. Nobody likes to give up power.

The world bank was involved from day zero. I remember one chap in particular, Magdi Armin. His vision was clear, that the MICT should be a very lean, new type of ministry with just policy being made and everything outsourced.

I never had the heart to tell him that the executives were laughing at his ideas behind his back, especially the idea about outsourcing performance evaluation. Of course we could not outsource evaluation as then we could not control how the reports came out. Saving face, so it seemed, was more important than efficiency or the truth.

The Bank gave us lots of help. Indeed, in our first year with almost no budget apart from what we inherited from the Space Affairs Bureau, I was personally involved in writing up a number of projects. Some involved a study of the ICT capability of the ICT Ministry to help planning. Later ones, more ambitious, was a half million dollar project on developing an e-learning curriculum in the GMS, the greater Mekhong subregion. However, that project got unceremoniously derailed after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra famously said, “the UN is not my father” in reply to questions about his war on drugs that left 2,000 people extra-judicially killed by police. Overnight we were told not to accept foreign aid.

Later, 2003 was also the year of the ICT budget PC. The idea was simple enough, using the buying power of the ministry to buy and distribute PCs to help bridge the digital divide. This is one project that succeeded, in retrospect. The ICT PC succeeded in getting a substantial discount out of Microsoft. A full copy of Windows XP and Office XP cost just $30.

This is not the subsequent Windows Starter edition, but a full edition that was practically given away to stem the rise of Linux that the ICT PC was originally designed around. The project itself was a total failure, with unclaimed units gathering dust in warehouses and then later sold on in second hand shops. But in convincing Redmond to reduce the price of Windows and Office, it was a first.

Ah yes, Redmond. Microsoft and the Royal Thai Government signed an MoU, the first of its kind. We, as civil servants, argued that it was against protocol for a prime minister to sign an MoU with a private company - even one as powerful as Microsoft - as it should be an autonomous agency (such as SIPA) signing rather than the Prime Minister.

I still remember the sheer contempt from Microsoft’s representative, who burst out at us saying that it was a done deal, that Thaksin was going to sign with Bill Gates and if only he could write the boring bureaucratic language himself he would not need us to help him.

Luckily for them, my subsequent comments got me thrown out of the MoU team. Thaksin and Gates signed the fluff.

I worked on the e-Passport project and oh, boy was that a mess again because of arguments over power and budget between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the MICT. In the end we were told to conduct the study and we got NEC to write up a huge report that was totally overruled by the then vice-minister of foreign affairs.

Still, it was fun surprising my Minister on a trip to a passport factory in Finland with a prepared super high-tech passport of him as a citizen of utopia with all sorts of anti-forgery mechanisms onboard.

The subsequent bid was a total farce. For instance, the TOR clearly said that a video of the machine being used had to be showed from cold-start to making a number of passports within a certain time, or that machine could be imported and demoed live.

Three of the bidders imported one smaller demo machine that did not meet the speed requirements while the only company that showed a video of a complaint machine was struck out.

To cut a long story down short, the e-passports that won the bid were insecure and the biometric information could be easily hacked and re-programmed. But in trying to prove that they could be hacked, the vendor that lost was instead charged with tampering with government documents and had to flee into exile in Finland along with his children.

Then there was the MOC - ministerial operations centre, a war room with data walls to monitor everything. The only thing it was ever used for was for us to watch movies after hours without our bosses knowing.

Or the data center that was set up in a corridor, then was locked as someone remembered that servers were expensive and then effectively blocked off a pantry that the corridor led to. Not that the racks were ever fired up for use in my time there.

Or how a clarification by the Post and Telegraph Department (which later was spun off into the telecom regulator) telling police not to prosecute sub 100 milliwatt 2.4 GHz indoor use, intended to make WiFi legal, instead led to police actually arresting people with Bluetooth headsets if they were used outdoors.

I only lasted two years at the MICT. The level of incompetence, moreso than corruption, forced me to become a journalist and write about how things could be better if only common sense and reason prevailed.

Ten years have passed. Has that vision of being an enabler of e-Government happened? No. All that is left is web censorship and procurement of dodgy tablets and power-brokering (CAT and 1800 MHz seems to be on the top of the agenda these days). Back then, we had a small number of people who understood what ICT meant as the great enabler. Thailand has wasted a decade. Happy tenth birthday, MICT.

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